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Caraviello: At Darlington, Smith finally finds his breakthrough

May 08, 2011, David Caraviello,

DARLINGTON, S.C. -- Carl Edwards got to know Regan Smith in late 2002, when the future Sprint Cup star was driving a Truck Series entry for Mike Mittler, an owner from his home state of Missouri. Edwards had run seven races in the vehicle, but couldn't start any more and still maintain his eligibility for the rookie of the year award following season. So Mittler pulled Edwards out of the seat in favor of a New Yorker named Regan Smith, a move that at first left some hard feelings.

"I was kind of heartbroken," Edwards remembered. "I'm a race car driver. I didn't want to work on that truck while somebody else was driving it. I felt kind of honored after it was all over to have worked with [Smith] and met his family. They're really good people. We changed the engine right there in the garage, and I decided, I'm going to go ahead and work and swallow my pride here. I'm glad I did, because I got to know Regan a little bit better, and he's a good guy. He could have treated me any way, and he treated me like gold there. I've got a lot of respect for him."

Press Pass

Regan Smith discusses the significance of his victory at Darlington Raceway.

That respect showed Saturday night when Edwards and Smith faced off in the unlikeliest of duels in the unlikeliest of places, the final laps at Darlington Raceway with a victory in the storied Showtime Southern 500 on the line. Smith stayed out of the pits to take the lead with six laps remaining, and outran Edwards in a green-white-checkered finish to claim his first career victory in NASCAR's top series. It was a career-making moment for a driver with a stellar reputation as a qualifier, and has shown flashes with his small, Colorado-based race team, but hasn't been able to break through.

Saturday, he did. The driver whose apparent victory at Talladega Superspeedway in 2008 was nullified because NASCAR judged he crossed below the yellow line to advance his position, whose strong run in this year's Daytona 500 was scuttled by a crash late in the event, who has the best qualifying average but perhaps the worst racing luck of any competitor on the sport's premier series, survived a wall-banging final two laps to record a long-awaited win at a track where typically only current or future legends reach Victory Lane.

"I can't believe it, you guys," Smith said over the radio. "This is the Southern 500. We're not supposed to win this thing."

And yet he did, recording what he called his biggest victory since a major late-model event in Canada three years ago. "This is way cooler than if I had won Talladega a few years back," he gushed over the radio. He asked someone to fetch him a cap to put on in Victory Lane. He stared at a trophy adorned with names and images of past Southern 500 winners, men like Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt and David Pearson, and tried to imagine his visage alongside them.

"There's been so many ups and downs in my career, so many points where you think, man, what am I doing, what's the next move," Smith said. "I think it's obvious now that the best thing that happened to me was the end of the '08 season when I didn't have a ride, and got hooked up with ... everybody at Furniture Row Racing. They put their faith in me. There's been a lot of times when they could have gotten down on me last year [or] this year, and everybody stuck behind me and gave me the support I needed to keep my head on straight. I'll be honest with you, when I walked to the car [Saturday], I literally thought we could win the race. I think that every week when I walk to the car. The difference is, this week we did."

In season that began with Trevor Bayne and the Wood Brothers shocking the world in the Daytona 500, it was another victory for NASCAR's little guys. Smith's Furniture Row team is based in Denver, employs 64 people -- a small number by the standards of teams capable of winning Sprint Cup races -- and outsources its cars (from Richard Childress Racing), its engines (from Earnhardt-Childress), even its pit crew (from Stewart-Haas). The team's "satellite facility" in Charlotte is the garage of spotter Clayton Hughes. Engines and transmissions are transported to Colorado on a weekly basis in the back of trucks hauling furniture materials back and forth to Furniture Row headquarters.

"I remember when we used to race and run late models on Saturday night," Furniture Row Racing general manager Joe Garone said, "somebody would break, all the guys would be over there trying to help you. If you went and beat them, you're in a fistfight afterward. That's what it's like for us. It's kind of cool to have that support from other racing teams."

So there was the little guy, with a championship contender from a NASCAR juggernaut lined up right beside him, trying to defy both the odds and history to win at one of the toughest tracks on the circuit. When Jeff Burton's engine blew up to bring out a caution with 10 laps remaining, Smith radioed to crew chief Pete Rondeau that his No. 78 car was pretty good in clean air. Smith said the decision to stay out was "100 percent" up to Rondeau, who concurred with his driver. Garone texted team owner Barney Visser and got the same recommendation -- go for it. Buried in points, they really had nothing to lose.

Brad Keselowski and Tony Stewart stayed out as well, but after another caution that ignited a post-race brouhaha between Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch, it came down to Edwards, Smith and two laps at Darlington. "I definitely underestimated that restart a little bit," Edwards said. Smith cleared Edwards and thought well, at least he could salvage second place. But when Edwards didn't immediately catch up to him, his goals changed. One qualifying lap, thought NASCAR's best qualifier, and he might have a chance to win the thing. That he did, keeping his foot on the accelerator, banging off the wall in Turn 2, staying glued to the bottom of the track to force Edwards to pass him on the outside.

"When I drove down into Turn 3 on the last lap, I sincerely planned on driving right by him," Edwards said. "His car stuck a lot better than I thought. It surprised me. I really thought it was going to be a drag race to the start/finish line. He stayed out front."

* Smith wins first amid emotional spectrum at Darlington

Smith's victory may well have repercussions well beyond Saturday night, given that NASCAR changed its championship format to allow the two drivers with the most race wins outside the top 10 into its playoff. Last year, one victory would have been good enough to earn one of those wild card spots. Smith, who is 27th in points now, still has to climb back into the top 20 to be eligible. But Regan Smith in the Chase? After Darlington, it's a distinct possibility.

"We've been thinking about that for three or four weeks now, since we dug the hole in points," said Smith, 29 points out of 20th heading to Dover. "We've had that talk already, that we need to take chances like we did [Saturday night]. Our main focus was to sneak out as many wins as we can and get back in the top 20 in points. We had a pretty big hole to dig out of. We get another win and get it back in the top 20, and all of the sudden, yeah, you could make the Chase and use that system to your advantage. You don't want to be in the position where you have to use the system to your advantage, you just want to be in the top 10. But it's there, and since we've had the bad luck we've had to start the year, we're going to try and use it."

For a driver who has endured so many low points, from rides disappearing due to sponsorship losses and apparent race wins evaporating into thin air, it was a moment to savor. The trophy, Smith said, is going somewhere -- perhaps a coffee table -- where he can see it every day. Only one thing was missing Saturday. In a race run on the eve of Mother's Day, Smith's mother, Lee, wasn't at the race track. She was in Tuscaloosa, Ala., helping with efforts to recover displaced pets in the aftermath of last month's tornado outbreak in the region.

"She's always been there for all my wins all my races. She doesn't miss to many of them," Smith said. "That got me a little choked up. It does now, too."

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.